DECATUR — Weston Stephens is looking for a new beginning, and after Saturday, he's hoping that he's a few steps closer to getting one.
Stephens was one of hundreds of people who registered for an expungement summit hosted by the Macon County Circuit Clerk's Office at Richland Community College. Saturday's event featured attorneys and representatives of other legal resources on deck to help area residents begin the process of expungement or record sealing.
"I did the wrong thing," said Stephens, 29, referencing past arrests on cannabis and burglary charges. "Now I'm trying to do the right thing. The past is already written, but the future's not."
Under state law, certain arrests and convictions can be removed from records if conditions are met. Expungement allows for the legal record of an arrest or other information to be erased in the eyes of the law, while sealing records means crimes do not appear on routine background checks.
Whether someone is eligible to have their record expunged or sealed depends on certain variables. People can find out more about both processes by visiting www.illinoislegalaid.org.
Stephens said since his arrests, he has since served jail time, paid fines and carried out his probation. Despite all of that, he said, it's been hard for him to find work or leave the country.
Criminal histories often prevent people from getting jobs and housing, which is why Macon County Circuit Clerk Lois Durbin said her office worked to organize the summit. She said it had been in the works since February and is the first of its kind to be held in the county.
"With the way the economy is, people are trying to get jobs, Durbin said. "This is one way to help them out; by giving them a second chance."
Other counties in the area, like Champaign County, have done similar summits in recent months. On Aug. 25, the Greater Decatur Black Chamber of Commerce hosted a free seminar that aimed to educate those with criminal records about ways to have their legal histories sealed or erased.
Those who had appointments during the summit were able to fill out the necessary forms to get the expungement process started during the summit.
Typically, Durbin said, filing for expungement or sealing often comes with a fee, but people were able to file for free during the summit. The process involves filing paperwork with the courts.
"If the request is approved (by a judge), on that day we will send notice to law enforcement letting them know they need to expunge those cases," Durbin said. "They'll be expunged from the circuit court's records, too."
Among the legal resources represented during the summit were the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and Cabrini Green Legal Aid.
Land of Lincoln is a nonprofit corporation that provides free civil legal services to low-income residents and senior citizens in Central and southern Illinois.
Valerie McWilliams, an attorney with the organization's Champaign office, said state laws in recent years have become more forgiving toward people who want to have their records expunged or sealed.
"There's a lot more things now that are sealable," McWilliams said. "And that's because state legislature recently is acknowledging that it's important for people to get a second chance so that they can get a job."
McWiliams said a lot of the credit for the gradual relaxing of state legislation in regards to expungement and record sealing should go to Cabrini Green, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides several legal, social work and community-based services to Illinois residents.
Cabrini Green has successfully lobbied for several legislature changes to be put into effect, such as increasing the number of felony convictions covered by the sealing law and removing fines and fees as barriers to sealing convictions.
Paul Coleman, a founding member of Cabrini Green's leadership council, led the orientation workshops that summit attendees sat in on during the event.
He said he's volunteered with the organization for years, and as someone who has experienced the process of applying for expungement or record sealing, he knows that it's possible for people to move on with the right amount of patience and knowledge of their legal rights.
"I'm not embarrassed to stand on that stage and say what I've been through; the robberies, the thefts, the aggravated batteries," Coleman said. "Because this was 30 years ago. I'm 50 ... A lot of people are afraid to talk about their background. I'm not afraid to talk about my background."
"It's what you're doing now — what your growth is (and) how you've grown — that's what's most important."
As they stood in the lobby of Richland's Schilling Community Education Center, state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, and Cabrini Green Community Organizer Colette Payne said events like the expungement summit are the beginning of many people's path to a second chance.
"I hope some people by doing this (applying for expungement) as a community, that people can get the strength and courage from other people who are going through the same thing," Scherer said.
Payne, who began volunteering with Cabrini Green after she was released from Decatur Correctional Center in 2012, said persistence is key when it comes to erasing or sealing a criminal record.
"I tell people as a person with lived experience that it isn't easy, and anything worth having is worth fighting for," she said. "So we have to fight for our lives."